Editor's Note: Even after 72 years of Independence, the Mawasi community — a Scheduled Tribe — that lives in the hills of Madhya Pradesh, is deprived of many facilities. The tribe, from the villages of Satna district in Vindhya region, depends on forest produce and struggle for employment. Lack of employment opportunities, migration issues, incidents related to caste discrimination and drought conditions have put this tribe in a crisis. This three-part series looks at the issues being faced by the Mawasi people and how there is a wide gap between state policies and their reality.
Satna: A chapati with a pinch of salt and some mustard oil is all that Madhu, a three-year-old girl from a hard-pressed tribal community in Madhya Pradesh, gets to eat on a regular basis. Milk and vegetables are rare luxuries that are available when her mother, Mamta, has enough savings to buy provisions from the village market. This mother and daughter are not alone in the deprivation.
Madhu and Mamta are part of the Mawasi tribe, a community of forest dwellers, with a population close to one lakh in Madhya Pradesh. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the state has 21,437 Mawasi households.
The Majhgawan Block in Satna district, where this story is reported from, has about 12 Mawasi villages, including Madhu's village Barha Mawan. Her penury is shared by almost the entire tribe as food is scarce, employment opportunities have diminished, and educational and health facilities are inaccessible.
In stark contrast, this has not always been the case with the Mawasi tribe, which is known to have inhabited this region for centuries now. Until a few decades ago, the Mawasis were skilled in foraging the forests for fruits, vegetables, grains and even medicinal plants.
Even today, a typical Mawasi village bears signs of a well-off past. Unlike other villages in this part of India, Mawasi villages have a defined sense of aestheticism. Bush fences and wood-crafted decorations are commonplace in most Mawasi households that are made of mud and terracotta tiles. Some of these houses also have mud compound walls. In addition, the Mawasis create unique patterns and paintings on their walls and courtyards.
Living off the forest
Most Mawasi villages are situated at the beginning of the forest and have pathways leading to the jungle. "We have been living in the forests forever. I have never seen my forefathers do farming. We used to go to the forest every morning and pick up things ranging from vegetables, fruits and medicines. I also used to collect grains from the forest," says Rameshwar Mawasi, a 75-year-old from Madhu's village.
From food to livelihood, the forest used to be an integral part of the Mawasi life. Rameshwar, who is also the president of Barha Mawan village, says, "Forty years ago, on the day of my daughter's wedding, I had to provide food for close to 150 people. And so, I went into the forest with my mother and collected 80 kilogrammes of chiraunji in four days. I sold them in the market and bought grains and oil. Those were the days when the forest had everything for us."
However, the situation has changed a lot today. "I had to toil for four long days in the forest, but it prevented me from taking a loan for the marriage of my daughter. This is not possible nowadays. It does not matter how many days you spend in the forest, you don't find anything there now. The authorities from the Forest Department have fenced large parts of the forest, and we are not allowed there anymore. Only mahua and chiraunji are available in the parts of the forest that we have access to, and that too only in particular seasons. Earlier, we used to collect more than 50 herbs, plants, tubers and vegetables from the forest," Rameshwar adds.
Another senior tribesman, Shripal Mawasi, says, "We used to collect bilari kand (tuber), kodo, sama, kanku, dhunia, shatawar, behera, awla and other nutritious food from the forest. Nowadays, these things are hard to come by. In fact, the new generation of our tribe cannot even recognise most of the forest produce."
Losing out on tribal knowledge
Research by the International Journal of Herbal Medicine listed out about 50 medicinal plants that are collected by tribal groups in the Vindhya region, including the Mawasi tribe. The research paper also says that with the change in the forest landscape, the tribes are increasingly finding it hard to continue with the collection of herbs and medicinal plants. The research goes on to state that migration of the tribes to towns and cities, along with a shift in the village economy from being forest-driven to other means, the traditional wisdom of the tribes faces being forgotten. The research further points out that the government should establish institutional and financial systems to evaluate and promote the potential role of herbal medicine in modern healthcare.
"I'm the only person left in the village who has the knowledge of medicinal plants. The youth are aware of only commercial forest produces, such as mahua and chiraunji. There are hundreds of medicinal plants in the forest but due to lack of knowledge, villagers are not able to recognise them," says Rajaram Mawasi, a 55-year-old resident of Kirai Pukhari village.
Moving away from the forest
Twenty-two-year-old Rajjan Mawasi, also a resident of Kirai Pukhari village, says that collecting medicinal plants from the forest doesn't provide enough to feed his family. "We cannot survive without going outside the village or touching a fawda (spade). I do not want to learn about medicinal plants as I know it would be a waste of time," he says.
Rajju Mawasi, a resident of Barha Mawan village, says, "Firewood is the only thing villagers get from the forest. One has to work the whole day to collect one or two bundles of firewood, which can be sold for about Rs 50 to Rs 70."
Malnutrition as an indicator of a crippling ecosystem
The loss of the traditional source of livelihood has led to a depletion in the quality of the Mawasi life over the years. According to reports by a section of NGOs, about 50 children had died due to malnutrition in the district in 2008.
In July 2015, when activists from Vikas Samvad visited these villages to check the weight of children below five years using ICDS weighing machines, it was found that 30 percent of the children were severely malnourished (classified as Grade III and IV) and 42 percent had moderate malnutrition (Grade I and II); only 26 percent were classified as normal.
A closer look at the high levels of malnutrition among Mawasi children reveals a complex chain of problems stemming from reasons such as unemployment and economic insufficiency to ecological factors such as drought.
Losing grip over the forest
Earlier, the Mawasis used to be entirely dependent on the forest. Today, with the loss of their forest habitat, Mawasis are migrating to places like Maharashtra and Delhi in search of jobs.
“Forest are shrinking day by day and now, one needs to go deep inside the dense forest to pick forest produce, which is not possible in the presence of forest guards," says Shyam Sundar Mawasi, a resident of Putrichuwa village. Consequently, these forest dwellers are losing grip over the forest itself.
Rain of woes
To make matters worse, the back-to-back droughts in the past two years have made this region dry. The normal rainfall in this region used to be 1,039 millimeters (mm). In year 2018, total rainfall recorded was 784 mm, while in 2017, it was just 743.2 mm.
There appears to be no respite to this problem in the horizon as data from Meteorological Department of Bhopal predicts drought conditions this year as well. It says Madhya Pradesh is under the rainfall deficiency zone with 75 percent monsoon deficiency. This number was arrived at after collecting data of rainfall in the state between 1 to 17 June this year. The data shows that monsoon deficiency in Satna is 16 percent.
Though the Mawasi tribe is recognised as a Scheduled Tribe, it has not been included in the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). As a result, Mawasi tribals are not entitled for special programmes run by the government for the upliftment of other tribes like the Baigas.
Commenting on the existing governmental support to tribal communities, Sachin Kumar Jain, a social worker associated with Vikas Samvad, says, "We have to understand that tribes are different from other villagers. Their culture, food habits and livelihood are very different. I feel that there is a need for special programmes apart from traditional government scheme for the upliftment of tribes."
Dissent against the forest department
Voices are being raised against the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department too. According to Maniram Mawasi, a resident of Kelhaura, the state forest department has occupied acres of forest agricultural land that the Mawasis had been cultivating for generations.
"Forest guards and officers restrict villagers from entering the forest. The state forest department has planted small trees to mark a boundary preventing us from using the forest. Few months ago, they stopped me from entering the land where my ancestors had been farming for years. So, I decided to take the legal route and file a claim for my land as per the Forest Right Act," says Maniram.
Another villager, Buda Mawasi, has also filed a similar claim over the forest land. They are yet to receive any response from the government. Buda fears that his claim might get rejected as 70 percent of such claims under the Forest Right Act have been rejected in Satna district.
However, the district forest officer Rajeev Mishra denied the charges of the villagers. He said, "Our guards never harass a villager who goes into the jungle for collecting forest produce. We only make the jungle encroachment-free and keep an eye on the poachers."
Mishra also assured the tribes not to worry about the presence of forest guards.
Tribal welfare minister of Madhya Pradesh Omkar Singh Markam said that he is concerned about the condition of the Mawasi tribe. "I am aware of all the problems what you have observed on the ground. I also belong to a tribal community and have faced such problems as well. And that's why I'm working on analysing the current schemes which are being run by the government. Our department would make some changes in way of implementation of schemes," he said.
Markam emphasises that he does not want the tribals to be dependent on government schemes.
"I know that schemes are important, but they are temporary support. I want the tribal people to be self-sufficient and I will do everything to connect them with their traditional livelihood system," he informs.
Satendra Singh, the District Collector of Satna, was unavailable to comment on the issue.
The author is Bhopal-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com
Updated Date: Jul 24, 2019 18:31:48 IST